A popular modern theory is that Jesus will return in secret to rapture Christians to heaven. But did Jesus or the biblical writers teach this?
One of the fundamental teachings of Jesus Christ was that He would return. Shortly before His death, He clearly said, “I will come again” (John 14:3).
Historically, the return of Jesus has not been heavily emphasized by mainstream Christianity. For the most part, emphasis has been on His first coming.
But the return of Christ has seen a revival of emphasis through a doctrine developed less than 200 years ago known as the rapture. Many evangelical preachers have built entire ministries around the rapture message.
A brief overview of the rapture
One of the most common forms of the rapture theory teaches that Jesus will return to earth in two phases.
According to this theory, in the first phase, Jesus will come secretly at an unexpected time to snatch up (or rapture) believers and take them to heaven. From the perspective of non-Christians, millions of people will vanish in an instant. Fictional works on the rapture colorfully describe chaotic scenes of planes and automobiles crashing as their pilots and drivers disappear.
Immediately following the rapture, the Antichrist appears, beginning a seven-year Great Tribulation. Believers will be protected in heaven during this time.
In the second phase of His coming, Jesus and the saints return to earth in triumph and glory and begin the millennial rule.
An anything but secret coming
The central premise of this modern teaching is that there are two future comings of Jesus Christ to earth. First, when He secretly returns to rapture believers. And second, when He returns visibly to judge the world.
But Hebrews 9:28 is the only scripture that assigns numbers to Christ’s comings to earth: “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many [the first coming]. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time [the second coming], apart from sin, for salvation.”
The Bible teaches two distinct comings. There is no third coming mentioned here or anywhere else in the Bible.
But could this “second time” be referring to a secret rapture when believers are taken to heaven?
The text clearly describes the second coming as an appearing—not a secret! The Greek word translated “appear” is revealing. It is optanomai—the root being op, from which we get such English words as optic and optical. The meaning of optanomai is to look at, to behold, to appear or to allow one’s self to be seen. The same word is used in Acts 1:3 about Christ “being seen by them during forty days” after His resurrection.
In the Olivet Prophecy, after describing the signs of the Great Tribulation, Jesus taught: “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see [optanomai] the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30).
The next verse describes the gathering of the elect from around the globe by “a great sound of a trumpet” (verse 31). Revelation describes Christ’s second coming similarly: “He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see [optanomai] Him” (Revelation 1:7).
From these scriptures, it’s clear that Christ will return one more time—a second time—in a visible way. There will be nothing secret about it.
The rapture scripture that isn’t
The most often quoted scripture to defend the rapture is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. In fact, the originators of the theory derived the word rapture from the phrase “caught up,” based on the Latin word rapere used in the Vulgate version in verse 17. So, for the rapture to be true, this verse has to describe a secret coming that precedes the visible coming described in the above verses.
In 1 Thessalonians 4 the apostle Paul is comforting a congregation grieving recent deaths (verse 13). Paul assures them that “we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep [dead]” (verse 15). The Bible teaches that the dead are asleep in their graves, awaiting a future resurrection—not in heaven.
But when does the resurrection happen? At a secret rapture?
Verse 16 makes it crystal clear: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”
Jesus Christ’s coming will be seen and heard by everyone. It will be public, obvious and unmistakable.What point is Paul making by using three auditory signs—a shout, voice and trumpet blast—to describe Christ’s coming? The same point that other verses make when they use optanomai! Jesus Christ’s coming will be seen and heard by everyone. It will be public, obvious and unmistakable.
Verse 17 continues: “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [the resurrected saints] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
Being “caught up” occurs after Christ’s visible coming. The apostle Paul taught the same thing to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15:52: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” After this resurrection, He and the saints will rule “on the earth” (Revelation 1:6-7; 5:10). To learn what happens afterward, see the sidebar “A General Chronology of Christ’s Return.”
Time to leave the rapture behind
Millions of Christians put great hope in the rapture as a way to escape the Tribulation. But the protection offered to Christians isn’t being raptured to heaven, but instead is a place of protection on earth (Revelation 12:14). The idea that Jesus will return secretly and rapture people to heaven is a modern idea contrary to the words of Christ and the New Testament writers.
We encourage our readers to study what the Bible actually teaches about Christ’s return. The rapture is great fodder for fiction, but has no biblical basis. Leave it behind and put your hope in the visible second coming of Christ to rule this earth with power, justice and truth.
Sidebar: A General Chronology of Christ’s Return
- The beginning of sorrows: The deterioration of world conditions accelerates as religious deception, war, famine, disease and death increase worldwide (Matthew 24:4-8; Revelation 6:1-8).
- The Great Tribulation: An intense 3½-year period of war and suffering occurs (Matthew 24:21-22). Also called “Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7).
- The Day of the Lord: God begins to directly intervene in man’s affairs as the seven trumpets sound (Revelation 6:17; 8:1-2, 5-6).
- Christ descends from heaven: At the seventh trump, Christ, surrounded by angelic armies, is seen descending on the clouds (Matthew 24:30-31; Revelation 11:15; 19:11-16).
- The dead and alive in Christ rise: At the same trumpet blast, God’s people who have died are resurrected. Together with those alive, they’re transformed to spirit and meet Christ in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
- Christ stands on the Mount of Olives: Jesus touches down in Jerusalem and begins ruling the earth (Zechariah 14:4-5, 9; Acts 1:9-11).
- The millennial reign: Having easily defeated the armies of the earth attacking Him (Revelation 17:13-14), Christ and His glorified saints rule the earth for 1,000 years, transforming it into a utopia under the perfect rule of the Kingdom of God (Revelation 20:1-6; Isaiah 2:2-4).
For more explanation of these events and to learn what happens after Christ’s 1,000-year reign on earth, download our free booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.